"Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
In today’s readings we come across two kings with their names starting with letter ‘C’. In the first reading there is a mention about the king Cyrus of Persia and in the gospel we hear about the Roman Emperor Caesar. I am not intending to give a detailed description of these two kings but the necessary information in order to situate us into the context.
The 12 tribes emerging from descendants of Jacob got divided into two kingdoms, namely Northern kingdom and the Southern kingdom after Solomon’s reign. Northern kingdom, which is called as Israel had Samaria as its capital and the southern kingdom, called as Judah had Jerusalem as its capital. In 722 BC the Assyrians marched against the Northern kingdom and destroyed it totally by taking all the inhabitants as captives. We do not have any evidences with regard to their fate. What happened to those people who were taken as captives? Were they liberated? We do not know anything about them. Seeing their fate, the prophets started warning Judah the southern kingdom. The people continued to exhibit their infidelity to Yahweh. In 587 BC the Babylonians did the same thing to Judah, what the Assyrians did to Israel two centuries earlier. They were exiled and held as captives in foreign land. It was in 539 BC, Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians. Cyrus in spite of his reputation as great warrior respected the local cultures, traditions and customs. He allowed the people of Judah, to get back to their land and thus gave them political freedom. It was this Cyrus who is praised as the Anointed one by Isaiah, the only person who was given this title other than Jesus Himself. He was considered as the Messiah for the people of Judah.
The Persians were later conquered by Alexander the great. After Alexander’s death the Macedonia dynasty was divided into two provinces and later into to four. Years later it was captured by the Romans. Julius Caesar becomes one of the prominent kings of Rome. But it was Augustus Caesar who actually establishes himself as the powerful king and was even considered as God. Augustus’ image was engraved in the coin as he was considered as God. It was Tiberius Caesar who ruled Rome during the public ministry of Jesus.
The Pharisees clubbing with Herodians approach Jesus with the finest trap. If Jesus says, it is obligatory to pay the tax, his own people will turn against him for being disloyal to their nation, and if Jesus says it is not right to pay the taxes, he would be taken to task by the Herodians who were puppets in the hands of Romans. ‘Yes or No’, will be deciding his fate. We always tend to think in terms of ‘Yes or No.’ We do not see that there is always another way to approach the problem. This is called lateral thinking. When we say, 1+1, we always think it is 2. It need not be. 1+1 can be also equal to 1. If you take a drop of water and place it on a plate and then leave another drop of water gently on to the same drop, it will remain as one drop. Our minds always thinks in ‘Either- Or’ fashion but we seldom approach it with ‘Both - And’ model. Jesus beautifully gives an answer and silences his opponents.
This passage is one of the most important passages of the Gospel. We should not forget that the Church grew along with the state. From the time of Constantine there was a happy blend of the Church and the State. When the Emperors got converted, all the subjects also were forced to change their religion. But it did not always have a happy co-existence. There were a lot of problems due to undue intervention of the State into the affairs of the Church.
Jesus actually had given the solution much before. We need not bring dichotomy between the Church and the State. One can be a very good Catholic at the same time be an honest citizen of the State. Loyalty to one’s faith need not necessarily bring friction in one’s citizenship (exceptions do exist).
Let us not forget that God alone is the ruler. We cannot give anything to God because everything we have is from God. But as long as we live in this world, we have our obligations to the State and our country. We need to pay our taxes properly. We need to be honest in our dealings in our work place. A person who receives bribes in the office and donates a good some to the Church will be still dishonest citizen and unfaithful Christian.
Jesus response takes me to think another plane. When we approach our problems with ‘either or ‘fashion, most of the times we end up in frustrations. This generation of ours is extremely fragile. The magazine ‘week’ has an interesting article in the recent issue on the suicides of young IIT students. It is not only with the youth of IIT but also other young people who think that there is no way to approach a problem once they encounter failure in studies, love life, business, relationship etc. Jesus approaches the problem in another angle. Whose words should I listen? My mother or my wife? my friend or my girl friend? My parents wish or my wish? Why can’t we approach it from another angle?
Many years ago in a small Indian village, a farmer had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to a female village moneylender. The female Moneylender, who was old, fat and ugly, fancied the farmer’s handsome son, Cliff. So she proposed a bargain. She said she would forgo the farmer’s debt if she could marry his son. Both the farmer and his son were horrified by the Proposal. So the cunning female moneylender suggested that they let providence decide the matter. She told them that she would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty moneybag. Then the son would have to pick one pebble from the bag.
If he picked the black pebble, he would become her husband and the father’s debt would be forgiven. If he picked the white pebble he need not marry her and the father’s debt would still be forgiven. But if he refused to pick a pebble, his father would be thrown into jail.
They were standing on a pebble-strewn path in the farmer’s field. As they talked, the moneylender bent over to pick up two pebbles. As she picked them up, the sharp-eyed son noticed that she had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. She then told the son to close his eyes and pick one pebble from the moneybag. Now, if he reveals the dishonesty of the lady, it would be harmful for his father. He also thought that providence of God will lead him to a better conclusion that can overcome the dilemma.
The son put his hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, he fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles. ‘Oh, how clumsy of me,’ he said. ‘But never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.’ Since the remaining pebble is black, it must be assumed that he had picked the white one. And since the moneylender dared not admit her dishonesty, the son changed what seemed an impossible situation into an extremely advantageous one.
As we ask God for the grace to live as faithful Christians and honest citizens, let us also ask the Lord to give us insight to approach the problems of life as did our Lord Himself.